English: How should it be taught? By whom? To whom? Where? When? These are the recurring pedagogical questions bedeviling a nation that, inundated though it is with English words and phrases (often comically distorted), can't seem to acquire world-class proficiency in the lingua franca of the globalized marketplace.
In March, an education ministry panel proposed that English be compulsory beginning in fifth grade elementary school -- instead of, as now, in the first year of junior high school. A bad idea, argues veteran journalist Nobuhiko Ochiai in Sapio. "If the plan goes through," he writes, "the English of the Japanese will get even worse."
No wonder the ministry misses the point, Ochiai says, given its history of bureaucratic bungling -- lurching, for example, from the force-fed education of an earlier day to the slower-paced "relaxed education" of today, only to find itself the butt of angry parents and teachers accusing it of dumbing Japan down just when maximum brainpower is needed for global competition. The ministry "toys with" Japanese education, Ochiai says, instead of coherently guiding it.
"I am not saying the Japanese shouldn't learn English, and I grant that English is indispensable if we are to make a place for ourselves in the global society," he writes. It does not necessarily follow, though, that Japanese schools are in a position to teach English effectively. If, as he believes, they are not, lowering the age at which bad English is taught to children risks doing more harm than good.
Problem No. 1: Where will the native-speaking assistant language teachers the ministry plan envisions come from? There are some 23,000 elementary schools nationwide. You'd need a small army of teaching assistants. Who would fill the ranks, Ochiai demands -- foreign backpackers hanging out in Tokyo's Roppongi district? Unquestionably many of them are native English speakers, but few are qualified teachers, and to put children in the hands of nonteachers would be sowing seeds for future trouble.
From unqualified teachers, the kids might pick up colloquial expressions and casual conversation -- the sort of repertoire that "will get you invited to parties to be the target of jokes you don't understand," as Ochiai puts it, while doing little, he feels, to advance the nation's globalization.
A second problem hinges on what advocates of early language instruction often regard as a fact in their favor: The younger the child, the more easily he or she soaks up foreign languages. Ochiai turns the argument on its head. The younger the children, he fears, the more readily they'll absorb bad English, and the more indelibly it will stick to them later in life.
Basic education, as Ochiai sees it, is best acquired in one's own language: "Japanese who can't read Sapio properly in Japanese aren't going to get much out of Newsweek in English."
Nor will they have much to say to foreigners. "If you can speak English, you can speak to a billion people," hypes a private English school commercial quoted by Ochiai. Actually, he shrugs, the true figure is 3 billion -- "but ask yourself: Do you really have anything to say that will be of interest to so many people?"
First have something to say and then learn how to say it in English? A revolutionary idea.
Today is Mother's Day in the country where I live. So today in church, we celebrated.
Understand, this is a church that doesn't follow the church year. I call it "aggressively Protestant." We do celebrate Easter and Christmas, but that is IT. No Palm Sunday, no Advent, no Pentecost...
But we DO celebrate Mother's Day.
Today the person leading the singing had all the men stand up and sing a song to all the women. The song was "Jésus me demande d'être un rayon de soleil..." which is the French translation of "Jesus wants me for a sunbeam."
The fourth verse says that we want to forget ourselves and do nothing except "être pour ceux que j'aime un reflet de Jésus" (be for those I love a reflection of Jesus). The song leader asked the men to sing, instead, "être pour toutes les dames un reflet de Jésus." To be for all ladies a reflection of Jesus. Hmm.
Then he asked the men to go around and greet the women. So rows of men filed by and kissed all of us women on both cheeks, mumbling, "Bonne fête," or, as one translated it into English, "'Appy Birfday."
A single non-mother who was sitting near me commented that this was the best Mother's Day she had ever experienced. She thinks this should become a regular tradition, not just here but around the world.
At our school, some parents have donated supplies to redo the elementary school bathrooms. Today we found out that the workmen have confused their instructions and put the pink tiles in the boys' bathroom and the blue ones in the girls' bathroom.
I thought that I had read somewhere that the whole pink/girl, blue/boy connection was recent, and I found this summary of some of the history of it. Clearly not everyone thinks it matters.
The woman who was in charge of the project is quite perturbed. But it's too late - the pink-tiled room already has a urinal. And that is definitely for little boys.
Thanks for your comment, Dr. Bacchus. I've been thinking about this all day (while doing many other things, of course) and I noticed something.
Out of these four things that allegedly bind Americans together (shared ideals, appreciation of history, respect for the flag, and ability to speak English), only one can be objectively tested.
Shared ideals - pretty nebulous. As you pointed out, Dr. B., American people have many widely divergent ideals. And how do you determine what people's ideals actually are in practice? They make lists of them - most include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness - but the way they interpret them varies widely. Do a Google search for "American ideals" and you find some strange bedfellows.
Appreciation of history - you can't test for that either. You can test how much people know about their history (hint - not much), but whether or not they appreciate it is another question. (Of course, you could also argue that it's difficult to appreciate something you know next to nothing about.)
Respect for our flag - well, you can watch people to see if they say the pledge or burn flags. But people in every country respect their flag - that's not unique to the United States. And it's still a bit of a subjective way to judge people.
But language! Ah! There you have something you can look at objectively! Now we can tell whether someone is one of us! The only slight problem is that there's a wide continuum of speaking English. Are we to declare someone unAmerican if he or she makes grammatical errors? (No, I won't go further with that one - it's just too easy.) How about someone who's learning English? American enough? How about someone with a thick accent?
We've never had an official language before in the United States, and wave after wave of immigrants have learned English anyway and assimilated to our society. Why, all of a sudden, does it become imperative to have a law making English the official language?
I think people are bound together by kinship and friendship. I think people come to the United States because they value our economic wealth and because they like those "American ideals" insofar as they allow people to be, excuse the jargon, self-determined individuals. I think that making English an official language can only exclude these people, many of whom want to be part of America and what it stands for, and achieves no good end. I assume that one of the results would be to stop providing interpretation services and printing official documents in several languages. This would deny "American ideals" to many who need them most.
I want to draw your attention to some links I've recently added to my "Sites I Visit" list.
First, did you know Lois Lowry has a blog? I've been reading her book Gathering Blue with my seventh graders. I hadn't read The Giver before, either, and just had that great pleasure last week. What a book - full of ideas to ponder and discuss. Lois Lowry is a wonderful writer, and what's more, she updates her blog pretty regularly! (In Thursday's post entitled "Middle School Language Art Links," you'll find a link to websites of other YA authors.)
The Carry On Journal is a new online magazine whose purpose is "to give multi-cultured people a chance to explore their unique perspective on the human condition." The first issue was recently posted. Take a look!
Recently on Tulip Girl's blog, I found a link to my new favorite, Paris Daily Photo. Apparently there are dozens of other Daily Photo blogs - you can see a list at the Paris site. People around the world are posting a photo a day from the town or city where they live. Hey, friends and relatives in fascinating places - why don't you do the same? I'd try it, but since I rarely go anywhere except work, home, and church, I don't think I'd be able to keep it up for long. (Not that there aren't many strange and wonderful sights in those three places and the roads leading from one to another!)
These are just the latest additions to my links. Check the others out, too.
"Almighty God, we entrust all who are dear to us to thy never-failing care and love, for this life and the life to come, knowing that thou art doing for them better things than we can desire or pray for; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."
I've worn four different school uniforms, most not bad but one incredibly ugly. I've worn (obligatory) suspenders to hold up my skirt, I've worn a tie, and I've worn regulation "knickers" (which, by the way, are not the same thing in British English and American English - ask me how I know).
Nobody enjoys wearing a school uniform - it's something students are supposed to complain about. My students wear a uniform that is infinitely more attractive and more comfortable than what I had to wear, and they whine endlessly about it. But I've always felt that uniforms are a good idea because of the elimination of competition over clothing. They aren't a solution to all the ills of schools and society.
I was surprised to read about negative results in academic achievement. I'm going to look into this more and see what I can find out about the study design. It's counterintuitive, but then, so much of reality is!
It's mango season, and they're everywhere! For the dollar a reliable source tells me is the average for one mango in the US, here you could buy around twenty much bigger and better ones. They are sweet and juicy and a huge treat.
The other day I went into the auditorium at my daughter's school and saw that they have put up a large fruit at the front to represent each of the fruit of the spirit. I laughed when I saw that joy was a mango. How perfect. Of course joy is a mango, as its juice runs down your chin and its sweetness fills you up. Joy is extravagant and cheery and so is a mango. Joy sustains us through tough times, and hey, a mango does a good job of that too. It's good for you and delicious too.
We have the same electricity situation in the country where I live. Except that people in Delhi "have had to go without power for as much as five to six hours at a stretch," while where I live we are lucky to get six hours out of forty-eight. If you look at the photo with this article, you'll see a sight that is very familiar here, too.
I am from malaria medicine, from clothes hand sewn to match my brothers' outfits, from word games and family readalouds. I'm from airline tickets and moving days and new houses. I am from chicken curry, chapatis, and ugali, from homemade pizza and ice cream, from chai and morsik.
I am from jacaranda and bougainvillea, mown lawns, and endless fields of tea.
I am from Wednesday evening prayer meetings, kneeling on polished wooden floors with my face in a folding chair, from upcountry mission stations, from Sunday school, from potluck suppers after church, from slide shows of foreign places and foreign people who are friends to me. I'm from singing "God is so good" in three languages. I am from missionaries – odd mixture of madcap adventure and dutiful keeping of rules. I am from men unafraid to cry and women unafraid to use their brains.
I am from the long corridors of boarding school, smelling of Dettol. I'm from weekly letters home, from visiting Saturdays with chocolate cake.
I am from overstuffed bookcases, from unscheduled hours in libraries, from Narnia, from Little Women.
I'm from "Ee Mungu, nguvu yetu," "God Save the Queen," and "Oh say, can you see?" I'm from American children gaping at my African life, and from African children fingering my blonde pigtails. I'm from British people saying, "You don't seem American," and Americans saying, "I love your British accent."
I'm from somewhere else, from who knows where, from homesickness.
Don't delve too much into this subject if you don't want to find out heartbreaking information. You could explore UNICEF's site on children and water around the world, for example. You'd learn that 42% of the people on this planet don't have access to safe drinking water in their own homes. You'd learn that 1.8 million children die every year from diarrheal illnesses caused by dirty water.
Here are some facts from the Peace Corps website. "Every day over one billion people will make a three-hour journey on foot just to collect water. . . .The average Honduran spends 25% of their income on drinking water. . . .Over 25,000 people die every day from water-related diseases. Worldwide that is over 80,000,000 people in the last 8 years. . . .In the last 8 years, 130 people in the United States have died of water-related disease."
Where I live, I am reminded every day of how precious water is. I see young children and women carrying water in buckets and other containers on their heads for long distances. I have running water in my home (mostly collected from rainwater in a concrete cistern, but supplemented with some city water). We try to use it very sparingly. For example, do you really need to flush every time? We don't. Each time you don't flush, you save 3-5 gallons of water, depending on your toilet.
You may not live in a water-stressed area the way I do, but I hope reading some of these facts has encouraged you to think of water a bit differently. It is a precious resource, and if you have it coming out of taps in your home and you don't have to walk a mile to get it, you are privileged. And perhaps you'll consider giving to an organization that is working to provide safe, clean drinking water to some other part of the world.
I live with my family in Haiti (I used to call it Tecwil = The Country Where I Live in an attempt to preserve my anonymity and that of my adopted country - the earthquake changed that and everything else). I teach English to seventh and eighth graders at an international Christian school. The name of my blog comes from this song.